Building Sales With Authority

From the beginning of time, we’ve been wired to believe and follow people in positions of authority. Be it a prophet, scientist, politician, teacher, parent, police officer, and so on, we’re taught, directly and indirectly, to follow those who lead. We tend to follow even when “authorities” take us in the wrong direction, or encourage us to do things with which we’re not comfortable.

A great example is the Milgram Study on authority and obedience. In 1963 Stanley Milgram, a Yale University psychologist, conducted an experiment to see how the presence of authorities impacted people’s level of obedience, even if that obedience contradicted their moral beliefs. What he found was astounding and telling in terms of how marketers can use “authority” in branding, promotional, and engagement strategies.   

In short, Milgram rounded up 40 male volunteers and assigned each one to be a “teacher” in his experiment. Their role was to sit in a room with an experimenter, a person in a lab coat, and send an electric shock to a “learner,” a person in the next room, every time the learner answered a question incorrectly. The learner was actually part of the study and answered most questions incorrectly to receive shocks. The shocks got stronger with every delivery, starting at 15 volts and going to 450 volts. The teacher could hear the learner scream out in pain as these shocks were delivered. 

If the teacher hesitated or refused to deliver a shock, the experimenter in the lab coat ordered him to continue, even being told it was absolutely essential or that they had no other choice. 

Remarkably, despite showing anguish and dismay at hurting another individual, all participants continued to deliver shocks up to 300 volts. In fact, 65% went on to deliver the maximum pain of 450 volts! Why? Because they were told to by a person of authority (who was really an actor wearing a lab coat).

For marketers, the implications are significant. 

People look to “authorities” to help them make decisions. The chewing gum market is a good example. Since the 1970s Trident has been one of the top selling brands of chewing gum claiming that four of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients that chew gum.

According to an article in (the authority) The New York Times, “authority” marketing worked then and still does.  For instance, the inclusion of the American Dental Association’s seal on sugarless gum packages with claims such as chewing gum after eating helps reduce cavities, whitens teeth, or kills germs that can cause bad breath has bumped up sales significantly.  In one year sales for sugarless gum rose 6%. Sugarless gum—according to Information Resources Inc., another authority—makes  up 80% of all gum sold, up from 48%in 1998. 

If aligning with a credible authority can help the sugarless gum market secure 80% of total industry sales, chances are “authority” can help your brand, as well. And you don’t have to organize a panel of “five” experts to recommend your product. 

Here are some simple ways to tap into the power of authority for marketing:

Cite the research: There’s an abundance of research, articles, and opinions from experts on the Web about any given product or topic. If there are 3,980,000 results on Google for “lifecycle of an ant,” I suspect that there are at least a few results for any product or service being sold in a legitimate market today.

Endorsements by association: It’s true that we’re judged by the company we keep. Promote your client list as an authoritative statement that “others” who know your field of business find your expertise or products best in class. This tactic taps into social proof and authority, further increasing your emotional relevance.

DIY polls: With all the survey tools available today, you can easily and inexpensively poll consumers about your business category, brand preferences, price points, loyalty trends, and more. In just days you can get scientifically valid results. You can share the results of these polls that back up your position or product and cite the most credible authority for consumers today: other consumers.   

No matter what you’re selling, any reference to an “authority” is likely to boost credibility for your claims and position. And now you can cite Direct Marketing News to prove it!

Jeanette McMurtry, principal of e4marketing, is an authority on psychology-based marketing, speaking at business events worldwide. She is a Back by Popular Demand trainer, speaker, and course instructor for the DMA.
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